Rachel Podger: violin recital – the second Coffee Concert 2013 – 2014

The Brighton Dome Corn Exchange, 10 November 2013

I wasn’t sure about today’s concert. Solo baroque violin is a long way from our core repertoire of string quartets, and some of the advertised composers are a long way from being household names: Pisendel, Roman, Matteis, Biber. But I was encouraged  that it was given by Rachel Podger, who is known as one of the world’s foremost baroque violinists. And the fact that the concert was sold out suggests that others knew something I didn’t know.

Rachel entered dressed like an angel, from her mass of golden hair to her golden sandals: a reference to her CD called Guardian Angel from which today’s pieces were taken. She started with the sonata by Johann Georg Pisendel written about 1716: a minor work that she brought to life with her extraordinary playing. It helps that she has a lovely warm tone, that her considerable technique seems effortless, that she can convey a range of emotions from a gentle caress to a furious onslaught. But at the heart of her magic is her phrasing.

In her masterclass at Brighton College the day before, she talked about baroque phrasing: that you ease into a note, allow it to swell to its full volume, and then subside. It’s a phrasing made easier by the use of the baroque bow which is lighter than a modern bow, especially towards the tip, and wound to a lower tension. It’s also suited to gut strings, which often growl if attacked in a more modern way of playing. She also spoke about how the same shape applies to a phrase – whether just two notes together or a longer phrase. Today, in her playing, she demonstrated this: every phrase was exquisitely shaped as was every note within that phrase. You knew immediately what each note was doing there and where that phrase was going. What I have called a minor work became enthralling music in her hands. What part of a performer do you watch most? With Rachel it was the grace and precision of her bowing arm and the fluidity of her wrist that I found compelling.

I had my favourites among the lesser known works: three movements by Nicola Matteis, the man who walked from Italy across the Alps with his violin under his coat, to reach the court of Charles II in England and who taught the English violinists to rest their instruments on their chests instead of on their laps. And above all, the Passacaglia by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber – a repeated 4 note descending scale on which Biber embroiders the most wonderful extravaganzas. The violinist is playing two parts: the 4 note scale and the extravaganza above (and occasionally below) it. Despite the pyrotechnics involved Rachel was always able to bring out that scale. It helped that she had explained the structure of the piece in advance. And while on the subject of her explanations, she was a delight to listen to: bubbling with enthusiasm, hugely informative, totally understandable.

What would I do if I were to plan next year’s concerts? I must confess that, with string quartets or closely related forms, I enjoy the intensity of communication between players, the huge repertoire of great works, the variety of closely-related sounds that a group of string players can make. Against that I have to say that a solo player gives the audience a chance to appreciate one person’s unique approach to music, which has not been modified to blend into a group. In responses to last year’s Strings Attached questionnaire several people said they did not favour concerts featuring voice “unless it was Mark Padmore” following his performance with the Britten Sinfonia. I feel the same about solo violin: “unless it is Rachel Podger”.

Andrew Polmear